Treaty negotiations to conserve and protect nearly two thirds of the ocean open today at the United Nations (UN) in what is widely regarded as the greatest opportunity in a generation to turn the tide on ocean degradation and biodiversity loss.
Following over a decade of discussions at the UN, the two-week Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) is the first of a series of four negotiating sessions through 2020 for a new legally-binding treaty to protect marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction*, commonly known as the high seas. The ocean beyond 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) from a country’s shorelines is considered international waters – “the high seas” – and is globally shared. There is no overarching law in place to safeguard its biodiversity or its vital role in provisioning services – such as generating oxygen and regulating the climate.
“The high seas cover half our planet and are vital to the functioning of the whole ocean and all life on Earth. The current high seas governance system is weak, fragmented and unfit to address the threats we now face in the 21st century from climate change, illegal and overfishing, plastics pollution and habitat loss. This is an historic opportunity to protect the biodiversity and functions of the high seas through legally binding commitments” said Peggy Kalas, Coordinator of the High Seas Alliance, a partnership of 40+ non-governmental organisations and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The ocean’s key role in mitigating climate change, which includes absorbing 90% of the extra heat and 26% of the excess carbon dioxide created by human sources, has had a devastating effect on the ocean itself. Managing the multitude of other anthropogenic stressors exerted on it will increase its resilience to climate change and ocean acidification and protect unique marine ecosystems, many of which are still unexplored and undiscovered. Because these are international waters, the conservation measures needed can only be put into place via a global treaty.
Professor Alex Rogers of Oxford University who has provided evidence to inform the UN process towards a treaty said: “The half of our planet which is high seas is protecting terrestrial life from the worst impacts of climate change. Yet we do too little to safeguard that or to protect the life within the ocean which is intrinsic to our collective survival. Protecting the biodiversity of the high seas by bringing good governance and law to the whole ocean is the single most important thing we can do to turn the tide for the blue heart of our planet.”
Through the UN, states will discuss how to protect and conserve the high seas by establishing:
Marine Protected Areas (MPAs): MPAs are widely acknowledged as essential for building ocean resilience, but without a treaty there is no mechanism to enable their creation on the high seas.
Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs): Although some activities are partially regulated in some areas of the high seas, there is no legal framework for conducting EIAs to guard against potential environmental harm.
Benefit sharing and technological transfer: Many countries are concerned that they will not benefit from research into high seas species and will lose out on potentially vast new ocean genetic resources, such as discoveries of marine genetic resources (MGRs) that could provide new pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals and other uses. The negotiations will also aim at improving mechanisms to build capacity and transfer technology in developing countries relating to the high seas.
High Seas Alliance Member Quotes
Gladys Martínez, AIDA: “Tenemos esperanza que esta conferencia intergubernamental va a realizar avances importantes hacia la creación de un tratado para la conservación y uso sostenible de la biodiversidad en alta mar. Especialmente estamos complacidos de ver el compromiso con que los estados latinoamericanos están asumiendo el inicio de esta importante negociación.”
“We’re hopeful that this intergovernmental conference will achieve important advances toward the creation of a treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of high seas biodiversity. We’re particularly pleased to see the commitment with which Latin American nations are approaching this important negotiation.”
Dr Tom Appleby, Blue Marine Foundation: All nations and peoples have a stake in the high seas. It is high time the UK government, business and the general public took a leadership role in their protection, not just for the generations to come, but for all those species we share this world with.”
Tony Long, CEO, Global Fishing Watch: “Advances in satellite technology and big data processing are helping shed new light on what is happening in the high seas, heralding a new era of transparency in the previously opaque realm of high seas fishing. Our map and data are revealing the nature and scope of global industrial fisheries, especially important for the high seas. More and better data is one of our most powerful tools in achieving better governance of the high seas, helping to build knowledge, further research, and to emphasise the critical need for a holistic approach to the negotiation of new rules for how we use and protect two thirds of the ocean.”
Sofia Tsenikli, Greenpeace International:”The rapacious exploitation of our oceans, from overfishing to deep sea mining and oil extraction, is having a devastating effect on marine life and urgently needs a counter-weight. A global ocean treaty has the capacity to do just that, and deliver real protection for oceans beyond national borders. Crucially, it must have the power to create a global network of ocean sanctuaries, free from human destruction.
“Make no mistake, this is a pivotal moment in history. But protecting at least 30% of our oceans by 2030 will only happen with political determination, a shared international vision, and a sober reflection on the critical state of our oceans.”
Dr. Sandra Schoettner, Greenpeace’s global oceans sanctuaries campaign: “Oceans beyond borders cover half of our planet and belong to us all. They have no flags or languages or national divisions. They have no government department to protect them. The wildlife has no passport to ensure their safe passage. The rules that limit the plundering and destruction of these global oceans are fragmented and inadequate. Marine life is already reeling from the impact of industrial fishing, climate change and other extractive industries. We have a shared responsibility to protect our global oceans before it is too late. Now we have a once in a generation opportunity to turn the tide.
“These negotiations towards a global ocean treaty represent the greatest opportunity in history to protect the blue in our blue planet. And the science is clear: we need to protect at least 30% of our oceans by 2030. The life of our seas depends on the outcome of the next two years of negotiations, from the tiniest life-giving plankton, to dolphins, turtles and the great whales. A strong global ocean treaty would allow us to create a network of ocean sanctuaries to protect wildlife, ensure food security for billions of people and help us to tackle climate change. Governments worldwide not only have the opportunity to deliver a treaty that will allow us to protect our global oceans, they have an historic responsibility to do it.”
Dr. Lance Morgan, President of the non-profit Marine Conservation Institute: “Right now, our ocean is under siege, and we have a total inability to deal comprehensively with any activities in the high seas. Activities are managed one sector at a time, and new threats are emerging. Any kind of effort to protect a vulnerable habitat must go to many different international entities—separate shipping, fishing and mining management authorities. The UN IGC is a once in a lifetime chance to move forward on a treaty that will allow nations to sustainably manage activities on the high seas and protect its biodiversity.”
Maria Damanaki, Global Managing Director for the Ocean, The Nature Conservancy: “If successful, this treaty could be the most important step for marine conservation we have yet to see. We encourage collaboration and partnership between countries to create a robust agreement and a life-changing step for the ocean, our planet and humanity”.
Lisa Speer, Director of International Oceans at the Natural Resources Defense Council: “This new treaty provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to conserve and protect biodiversity on a planetary scale. We call on countries to work together to develop a robust conservation agreement for the ocean, on which all life on earth depends.”
Liz Karan, senior manager, protecting ocean life on the high seas, The Pew Charitable Trusts: “These negotiations are a critical turning point for marine protections. We now understand so much more about the interconnectedness of the world’s ocean with the health of the planet. It’s time for the global community to take action to develop a treaty to protect the high seas.”
Lora L. Nordtvedt Reeve, OceanCare: “A new treaty to protect the biodiversity of the high seas represents an important opportunity to prevent, reduce and control noise and other forms of pollution that cause significant adverse effects to the species and ecosystems of the high seas and deep seabed.”